Published:  12:50 AM, 21 May 2022

Bangla in West Africa

Bangla in West Africa

 Nikhil Biswas

Yes, you heard it right. Bangla language is spoken in West Africa and unlike Hindi or Urdu it is not just a language spoken by the South Asian expats rather it is an official language of one of the nations there i.e., Sierra Leone. Kolkata and Dhaka, both of which have produced great poets like Tagore and Kazi Nazrul Islam, respectively, have made the two cities the paradise of Bangla culture. However, only a handful are aware of the fact that a new paradise of Bangla culture is on the horizon, 6000 miles west of the land of Bengal.

Sierra Leone which was once a part of the British Empire has English as the de facto official language and the local language Krio serves as the lingua franca among the numerous linguistic groups within the country. It was in 2002 that Bangla was adopted as an official language by the then country's president Ahmad Tejjan Kabbah and ever since the number of people who speak Bengali as their second or third language is increasing rapidly.

The main architects behind Bangla being accepted as one of Sierra Leone's official languages is the UN peacekeeping force which was stationed in the country during the Sierra Leone Civil War between 1991-2002 and among the 16,830 strong troops, there were over 5000 troops from Bangladesh alone. The UN peacekeeping troops played an instrumental role in quelling the civil war which engulfed the entire nation and the Bangladeshi contingent in particular were at the forefront in taking control of the rebel areas. Despite the fact that, the Royal Army and Royal Air force along with the UN peacekeeping forces played a significant role in ending the civil war in 2002, it is the contribution of the Bangladeshi troops that occupies a special place in the Sierra Leonean folklore since they were present at the ground level for a longer time than the British forces.

The United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL) consisted of troops not just from Bangladesh but also from countries like Pakistan and Germany; however, the fact neither Urdu nor German went on to be accepted as an honorary language instead of Bangla in Sierra Leone is a clear indication of the sacrifices and contributions of the Bangladeshi troops.

 A large number of scholars consider the incident of February 21, 1952 (wherein 4 young Bangla boys were shot down by the Pakistani forces for demonstrating the importance of their language) as the greatest moment in the history of Bangla language because this day is recognized by the UN as 'International Mother Language Day'. However, in my opinion, on December 28, 2002 when Bangla became an official language of Sierra Leone is of equal importance since it is considered a watershed moment in the modern history of Bangla language for a variety of reasons, a few of which I am going to list out.

Firstly, after 28 December 2002, Bangla became the first ever language from the Indo-Aryan family to have official status across 3 countries (Bangladesh, India and Sierra Leone) since other Indo-Aryan languages such as Urdu has official status in India and Pakistan only whereas Hindi has official status in India and Fiji. Therefore, the fact that Bangla language has an official status across 3 countries sets it apart from the remaining 200 languages of the Indo-Aryan family. Secondly, with the locals of Sierra Leone learning Bangla in educational institutions has led the emergence of a new group of a 'non-native Bangla speakers' since Bangla spoken by non Bengalis in the Indian subcontinent is just limited to the Chakma Buddhists, Kokborok Hindus and a small of number of Garo Christians along with Assamese Hindus & Muslims. Thirdly, the manner in which Bangla gained its official status in Sierra Leone is a unique thing in itself because most of the time when a foreign language becomes an official language is either after an invasion or during the process of colonization like how French became an official language in their neighboring country of Guinea. Thus, it can be fairly said that Bangla became an official language in Sierra Leone through the domain of friendship & peace instead of force and bloodshed and such a story of a language gaining official status hardly has any parallels in the world maybe with the exception of Rwanda which was once a French Colony and has now accepted English as one of their official languages despite never being a part of the British empire.

Lastly, the official status of Bangla in Sierra Leone started a love affair with Sierra Leone after numerous institutions in the country started teaching it. Of Course, there prevails a confusion among a large number of Sierra Leoneans whether Bangla is an honorary official language or a full fledged official language, but nonetheless, Bangla language over the years has brought the nations of Sierra Leone and Bangladesh closer to each other. Under the Prime Ministership of Sheik Hassena, the relationship between the nations further received a boost with growing investments made by Bangladesh in the field of (i) Promotion of Bangla language and (ii) investments in Sierra Leone's agricultural and textile sector.

Therefore, it can be concluded by saying that Bangladesh can be a role model to other countries in the aspect of promotion of their national language not just within the country ex -liberation war of 1971 but also outside of their continent let alone country. The feat achieved by Bangladeshi troops which led to the glorification of Bangla language in Sierra Leone is a matter of pride not just for Bangladesh but for everyone who speaks the language which is considered one of the sweetest and has more native speakers than the Portuguese language.


Nikhil Biswas, MA (History), Delhi University.



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